Sayulita, a small town in Mexico, with a small wonderful stretch of protected Pacific beach and small waves for small surfers lies just below the Tropic of Cancer at latitude 20.868889. That famous line is the northernmost point where the sun gets directly overhead — during the summer solstice. Nowhere north of the line does the sun ever get directly overhead, e.g. nowhere in the United States except Hawaii. The day after the solstice it starts back on its eternal rounds to arrive at the high-noon point at the Tropic of Capricorn for the winter solstice [of the Northern Hemisphere.] This explains why many of the part-time residents of the town start packing their bags in late April, early May. It’s getting hot! Back to British Columbia, or North Shore, Illinois or dozens of other places they have come from to spend some part of the winter.

Just north of Puerto Vallarta, which flew into the American consciousness in 1963 with the tabloid displayed adulteries of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor during their filming of The Night of the Iguana, Sayulita retained its tranquility and distance over narrow mountainous roads until the 1990s. PV [Puerto Vallarta], as the foreigners like to call it, began to boom in the late sixties after the collapse of near mountain mining was replaced by development, highways and high-rise hotels. It is a major destination for the Love-Boat clan, and hosts a gay-friendly atmosphere as a get-away from big and inland Guadalajara. US hippies and surfers straggled into Sayulita in the late 60s and a decade afterward. It was the proto-typical tropical getaway, not as hot and dry as much of Mexico because the Sierra Madre mountains just kilometers from the beaches catch and hold the off-shore breezes, keeping miles of the coast cool and green for a good part of the year.

We arrived, very late comers indeed, following the advent of the first ATM machines by three years. By now Sauyulita is that odd mix of upscale and downscale that is the lot of many beach towns, from Ocean Beach, San Diego around the Horn and back up to Atlantic City, New Jersey. Some people come because they want to hang. Money means little while time to loaf and noodle with friends and strangers means a lot. Almost like a beach full of sea-lions, with not quite the closeness nor rank odors, folks just want to circulate, eat as they can, swim, sun and surf. Others come later for whom comfort means more. Cool restaurants are better than hot lean-tos. Table cloths are better than quickly swiped Formica. Asphalt roads are better than dust. Cell-phones are better than pay phones. ATMs are better than carrying bundles of cash. So modernity begins to creep in, like a tide slowly rising, not getting to all the streets at the same time, not touching every building.

The newcomers want better homes; good homes bring in brick masons, carpenters, electricians. More asphalt. More restaurants, more beer trucks, more t-shirts for sale, real estate offices, surfing classes… The foreigners bring their own cultures with them. They notice that Mexican kids are only in school 4 hours a day, in poor conditions. They organize. They help change the infrastructure. They volunteer to teach computer skills, after getting computers sent from friends and relatives in the states. The foreigners form a community improvement organization. At its best it is bi-cultural, bi-national mixing the good, tossing the bad. It depends on volunteers who come and go. Things get done, sometimes too slow which is probably better than sometimes too fast. Kids are learning science of the sea and the local wet lands from surfers who are re-remembering university classes they had come here to escape from.

For casual visitors like us a place like Sayulita is different from full immersion in Cuzco or Quito or even the remoteness of the Oso Peninsula in Costa Rica. English is spoken everywhere and heard on the streets. Shopkeepers may be retired from real estate sales in Reno; a favorite breakfast place belongs to a retired Principal from Salinas, California. But it’s not like a week-end trip to Mendocino either. A real grab-bag of cultural knick-knacks, the transitional zone in an evolutionary progress of human communities, neither full Mexican nor Full ex-Pat, a way-station that one day will be unremarkable; another of thousands of mixed, shaken and settled multinational towns where, as long as they stay human sized, the folks attracted to them will rub up against each other, take an interest in each other, become engaged, emotionally attached, irritated with, celebrate with, avoid, increasingly as neighbors with shared and mutual interests, no longer as strangers. One day, as in many places around the world, the new mix will seem to have never been anything different.

We came to see friends and to discover new birds in mangrove water-ways, lagoons, old coffee-plantations and city-sewage ponds. One can see a lot a birds in the tropics without lifting binoculars to your eyes. Magnificent Frigatebirds float over head, or whirl madly like acrobatic vultures, over a piece of tasty offal on the beach. Brown Pelicans soar in elongated squadrons, sometimes high, sometimes right over the waters of the quiet bay, plunging headlong –and head damaging–  after tasty baby marlin or other near-shore fish. Heermann gulls with bright orange beaks hang with the pelicans and sometimes pirate from them.

Building nests in shore-side palms we saw a battery of yellow-crowned night-herons, startling with the sweep of fine black feathers  under the chin and through the deep red eye, leaving a large white cheek, topped by the streaming yellow crown.  One had a two foot slender branch in its beak and was repeatedly trying to press it down amongst others to get the bed ready.  A companion stood near by, balanced on one leg and preening with the other.  It was getting to be a hot scene! Henry Miller would take an interest.

Every area has its own ecology, plants, insects, breezes and therefore birds.  Leaving the immediate beach area we took a couple of long walks along dirt roads or beaten trails through low, tropical jungle.  In one place we encountered what we came to call the “bunting tree,” a lovely, symmetrical tree, rounded like an umbrella and rich green, in which sat, as we looked unbelieving, tens of wonderful blue and indigo buntings, some blue grosbeaks, like so many Christmas ornaments, not visible at all at first, then suddenly as apparent as the tree itself.

Each of us had our own particular favorite bird.  Most of them appeared on a four hour boat ride through a mangrove water-way in San Blas, about three hours north of Sayulita.  Our boatman’s name was Chencho, a man younger than we are I’d bet, turned old by the sun and decades of outdoor manual labor.  He’d been recommended by another knowledgeable birder so off we went.  A snail-kite perched in a tree just over our heads was a pretty good sighting.  The cruel beak was clear to the eye.  He sat for his portrait for a while and disappeared.

Easily the most surprising visit was to a group of boat-billed herons.  Invisible at first in the dense mangrove branches we suddenly heard a loud steady clapping, like two short boards being slapped together.  After more intense looking they suddenly came into focus, almost over our heads.  The sound was the clapping of their enormous, flat bills.

As dark came on Chencho kept us alert to the prize of the trip.  Within fifteen minutes of the sun setting behind the mangroves we had one is our sights — the strange and wonderful Northern Potoo — a bird so like the broken branch it favors sitting on it can easily pass unnoticed.

Besides the birds we caught lots of bug-bites despite hand waving, pants, sleeves and deet.  “Just as I thought,” said one of our crew who was an avid non-birder.  She had seen the lay of the land and kept to her books.  For the rest of us though birding gets in the blood.  I’m not sure why though it has a great deal with wanting to know.  What is this world we are such a small part of?  Who are my companions which, if I don’t look for, I may never see?  Or, more humanly, how do I name these things which I see and then don’t see so quickly?  Naming for us is a way of pinning the recognition, of saying that blue streak is this and not that.  The name is the little package we can peer into and see the color of the beak and eye, the beat and patterns of the wings, the height in the canopy where the bird finds its food.  Knowing this, we can expand beyond and begin to grasp the enormous complexity of the natural world.  What are the insects, and what do they live on?  What are the trees and the flowers, the lichens and fungus? As we increase our knowledge we can begin to predict — at this latitude and altitude, at this time of year, at this height in the canopy or that spot of undergrowth we should see this, this and that.  And as with much human endeavor, being right, or being wrong and learning, adds to our sense of competence, our readiness to live in the world, knowing more of it, and not being swept away or swept under as those are who don’t pay attention.

Our last sighting is still being talked about where Sayulita naturalists gather.  Midway through our expedition along the old coffee plantation on the cobbled once-upon-a-time Camino Real, we were startled to see what seemed to be a large cat.  It was one hundred yards away or so, sitting, with an enormous long tail resting on the ground, a lean body and a longish neck with an odd looking head hanging on it.  We couldn’t be sure what we were seeing: likely a juvenile mountain lion, but there was a look of a dog about it.  Possibly a, what?  Weasel sprang into my mind.  Our guide had never seen such a thing in the area.  We took our notes and excitement back to town and after investigation, conversations and scanning photos have decided we had seen a jaguarundi — sometime called a “weasel cat.”  We wouldn’t have liked to encounter it much closer.  In fact, passing through the spot it had been sitting, the scent of its marking was all we needed of closeness.

It was not all birding or nature walks.  With our friends was the usual catching up and pressing ahead with all the mundane but interesting matters between such friends: who is marrying whom, and when, and what is the color of the bride’s dress;  who is pregnant; how wide is the smile of the grandparent; what child is finally off the family dole and which has parachuted back home. With several teachers amongst us the talk turned to budget cuts in California, books for second graders — which are best to read aloud and which the best to excite new readers forward.  What new apps or programs are there to help with handwriting, numbers, story telling?

And the talk always turns to books. What are we reading and do we recommend it on? This is a list that could go on longer than the bird list.  We had shared with each other prior to meeting, and read while there, stories and histories of Mexico.  A fine new history of Mexico had been recommended on our last trip, and several had dipped into it.  Earl Shorris’ “The Life and Times of Mexico.”   Shorris is a writer and thinker of wide interests, from wealth and poverty to Christian conservatism, from a novel about Pancho Villa to this erudite history of Mexico.  He writes for both Harpers and The Nation.

Mexico begins in 1821, he tells us, with liberation from Spain.  Or, in 3,000 BC with the domestication of corn.  A fascinating book, and unlike standard history books working through the decades, important person by significant milestone.  He divides into four Books: The Head, The Heart, the Liver  and The Book of Predictions.  Chapters in these books take titles such as “The Mesoamerican Origins of Generosity,” “Diego Rivera’s Dogs,”  “The Science of Dismal Prospects.”  As such you encounter history, judgments, non-linear progressions and narrative generosity.

We had two good books of contemporary Mexican fiction.  The wonderful Wherabouts Press series, in Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, has a collection of 24 short stories, arranged as in all the Whereabouts volumes, by region of the country.  So we have stories from the northern border, to the northern desert, from Baja to Puebla, from Mexico City to Chiapas.    C. M. Mayo is an excellent editor and knows Mexico and its literature.  Don’t go to Mexico without taking this book!

The second book is from Dalkey Press, The Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction.  The translation editor is Olivia Sears, a San Francisco literary entrepreneur with a fine magazine called Two Lines and a monthly Lit and Lunch series bringing translators in to speak about their authors and their work.  She is also the founder and executive director of the Center for the Art of Translation [CAT]  You’re in good hands with Olivia’s choice of authors and translators.  The wryly told  True Friendship by Jorge F. Hernàndez /tr. Anita Sagástegui is fun to read. The ominous and erotic  fin del mundo / The End of the World by Héctor Manjarrez /tr. Elizabeth Bell is as inventive a story as I have read in a long while.  The book has the added benefit of being en face, very unusual for fiction, and a wonderful gift for those working through the middle and advanced stages of learning Spanish.

So after all this, a week away, we come back and find the biggest gift of all is of simply being away, of being disconnected, of letting the synapses heal from the twenty-four hour press of concerns both personal and worldly that living in our mega-connected world brings us. No news on television for seven days. All news comes from friends and neighbors, as it had been for tens of thousands of years before yesterday. Sleeping in a cool room with Venus peering through the window. The sound of the surf. A leisurely breakfast. Staring at the horizon. Reading a chapter and putting it down. Walking with a new friend or an old one. All these things that make life come back down to normalcy, and remind us of the good and the simple. Oh, and the birds, the beautiful, wonderful always surprising flying reptiles of a plentiful and inventive world…